Saudi Arabia: A New National Guard for a New King?

6 MINS READMay 8, 2015 | 09:00 GMT
New Saudi King Could Restructure National Guard
Saudi Arabian National Guard personnel listen as a member of the U.S. 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment explains how to operate an M252 mortar during Operation Desert Shield.

The Saudi Arabian National Guard, also known as the White Army, has been a critical pillar of the Saudi state dating back to the kingdom's founding. For over fifty years, the National Guard has adapted to the region's changing political and military landscapes and helped the House of Saud maintain a leading role on the Arabian Peninsula. Today, the Saudi Arabian National Guard is once again at a juncture, because Saudi Arabia's role in the Middle East and North Africa is changing rapidly. Riyadh is engaged in increasingly proactive regional military campaigns and political efforts. At the same time, the state is facing a complex political succession. In January, King Salman ascended the throne, following the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, and is now working to consolidate his power base. This combination of changing regional dynamics and domestic transition could compel Riyadh to reform, restructure, or reorganize the Saudi Arabian National Guard. Such a process, however, will be difficult because of the National Guard's delicate position within tribal politics and the critical role it plays in the Saudi power structure.

Historically, the Saudi Arabian National Guard is rooted in a group known as the Ikhwan, a Wahabi religious force of hardened and conservative tribal fighters. The Ikhwan played a key role in putting King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud on the throne of the newly established Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Initially, this group was deeply loyal to the king. The Ikhwan, however, had their own vision for the kingdom and inevitably clashed with the royal family. While Ibn Saud was focused on building Saudi Arabia into a modern nation state, the Ikhwan wanted to expand upon their recent conquests by invading the territory of perceived non-believers in the British protectorates of Transjordan, Iraq and Kuwait. The king had no intention of risking his new state in a war with the British and what began with the Ikhwan undermining his authority by carrying out unsanctioned raids, rapidly developed into the Ikhwan Revolt in 1927. It took until January 1930 for the monarchy to stamp out the uprising.

Following the revolt, Saudi Arabia decided to build a professional military — the Royal Saudi Land Forces. Eventually, it became apparent that these troops would need to be bolstered by an auxiliary force and the already armed tribal fighters were a natural choice to fill the role. In 1954, a year after the death of Ibn Saud, the Saudi government transformed the Office of the Jihad and Mujahideen, which managed the Ikhwan and other tribal forces, into the Saudi Arabian National Guard. The guard, however, remained a relatively small force — the main Saudi military was still the priority.

This started to change in the early 1960s when the House of Saud became increasingly unsure of their hold over the professional military. Having witnessed a string of military coups throughout the Arab World, the monarchy decided to transform the national guard into a force that was both unquestionably loyal to the royal family and also equal in strength to the Royal Saudi Land Forces. The king began this transformation by appointing Abdullah bin Abdulaziz — who would later become king in 2005 — as the National Guard commander in 1962. This provided the institution with a great deal of prestige and brought about a series of reforms to modernize the force. To facilitate this transformation, the House of Saud turned to the United States in the 1970s to help train, equip and increase the National Guard's conventional capabilities. At this time, the guard also began to recruit fighters from a few, markedly loyal tribes. This reform process paid off over the ensuing decades, as the national guard grew in conventional strength and came to play a key role in national politics — a position it continues to enjoy today.

The Current National Guard

The Saudi Arabian National Guard has come a long way since the Ikhwan Revolt and in 2015 is now a pillar of the nation's security structure. In many senses, it now holds the pre-eminent role within the Saudi state and is specifically charged with safeguarding the House of Saud. The National Guard is also charged with protecting the key holy sites, Mecca and Medina, as well as with providing security for oil and natural gas infrastructure. The prestige of these internationally important pilgrimage destinations and the guaranteed revenues from the energy sector are two of the essential pillars of Saudi power.

Today, the Saudi Arabian National Guard and the Royal Saudi Land Forces are of approximately equal strength in terms of numbers of troops. There are, however, noted differences in the two forces' munitions and capabilities. Unlike the regular military, the national guard is predominantly a mechanized and mobile force designed to respond rapidly to threats across the country. Meanwhile, the Royal Saudi Land Forces possess all of Saudi Arabia's main battle tanks and the vast bulk of the nation's heavy artillery. While the Saudi Arabian National Guard is expected to act as an auxiliary force in the face of an external threat, the Royal Saudi Land Forces bear the primary burden of responding to these threats. The national guard possesses considerable capabilities, but their duties are internal. They are a last line of defense for the nation and for the House of Saud itself.

Power Shifts and the National Guard

Going forward, Saudi Arabia seeks to project more power across the Middle East and North Africa. As Riyadh adopts this new posture, however, it must also sort out the reconfiguration of power accompanying King Salman's January accession to the throne. The new king has already reshuffled a number of high-level positions and chosen his nephew, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif, as his successor. This move replaced King Salman's original successor, his half-brother Prince Muqrin. As in decades past, the Saudi Arabian National Guard's position in these negotiations is key.

The current commander of the Saudi Arabian National Guard is Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah — a rival of King Salman's son, Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Because of his role as head of the National Guard, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah represents a potential challenge to King Salman's power consolidation. To mitigate this threat, Stratfor sources indicate that King Salman may be planning to centralize the security establishment in the hands of his son, current Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This could mean incorporating the national guard into the Ministry of Defense — effectively ending the national guard's role as a separate ministry with the ability to counterbalance the Royal Saudi Land Forces. Such a decision would also indicate that King Salman is more concerned about external threats at the moment than he is about pushback from the royal family against his consolidation of power.

Such a momentous change to the role of the Saudi Arabian National Guard would make strategic sense for the monarchy but would also be extremely challenging. Although incorporating the national guard into the Ministry of Defense would consolidate power around King Salman, this move would require overcoming objections from the influential National Guard leadership and the increasingly powerful Allegiance Council, which is a bastion of entrenched interests wary of the king's consolidation.

The Saudi Arabian National Guard's ranks also include numerous powerful tribal groups, which are key to the balance of domestic power. Many of these tribes have seen their influence grow along with that of the National Guard and would be reluctant to forfeit their position. The commander of the guard, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, enjoys respect because of his considerable military experience and training. On the other hand, the current defense minister, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has little to no military experience beyond the recently initiated Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen. King Salman would need to carefully negotiate any reforms to avoid offending these tribal forces.

Since its inception in the 1950s, the Saudi Arabian National Guard has grown into an influential, prestigious and capable security force. If it is at risk of being disbanded or subsumed by a relatively young and inexperienced minister of defense, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the new king would need to shepherd this transition with extreme caution. Upsetting the traditional balance of power could introduce a new internal conflict, not only in the House of Saud, but throughout the whole of Saudi Arabia. 

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